By Paolo von Schirach
November 17, 2013
WASHINGTON – Veteran Fox TV journalist and commentator Brit Hume said it best: JFK is the “Subject of the most successful public relations campaign in political history”. 50 years after JFK’s tragic demise, this is a good way to explain the otherwise inexplicable enduring love affair with this President, as America revisits (once more, after having done so a million times) the Kennedy story, the 1963 assassination and this President’s legacy.
Kennedy was “cool”
Hume also said that JFK was “cool”. And indeed he was. His image of the low-key, reflective and super handsome young President surrounded by a loving family lent itself perfectly to all sorts of good fantasies.
And it did not hurt that Kennedy used inspiring and deep words. In his 1961 inaugural address he warned the Soviets that “We shall pay any price” for the defense of liberty. He challenged America to send a man to the Moon. He wanted young Americans to serve abroad in poor countries as Peace Corps volunteers.
All this sounds so noble, so patriotic and so uplifting. And yet this handsome, idealistic President was violently taken away from us. And so we were left alone, without his precious guidance. Therefore, we still mourn his untimely death.
The record shows a different man
But the now ample and rich record of the Kennedy presidency shows a different reality. A rather weak and indecisive President who was not keen on civil rights for African Americans and who had few if any brilliant domestic policy ideas. In foreign policy he presided over the Bay of Pigs disaster and the beginning of the Viet Nam entanglement. His famous “Ich bin Ein Berliner” speech was empty rhetoric. America did not move one inch when the East Germans built the infamous Berlin Wall.
And yet, despite the mediocre record, despite his serial philandering and more, JFK’s memory is preserved like a precious relic of a by gone great era –a heroic era in which we were all inspired to altruistic deeds by the words of a charismatic leader who spoke nobly about our duty towards our beloved Country.
The PR campaign worked
Yes, as Hume put it, the “Kennedy Myth” is indeed just that: a myth divorced from reality. It is the result of a fantastically well orchestrated political PR campaign that keeps going and going, even after 50 years. What is most remarkable is that there was and there is no master mind behind all this. We were not led to believe untruths about JFK by some diabolic conspiracy. The enduring legend is the product of legions of adoring volunteers who contributed and still contribute to keep the JFK fantasy alive.
Legends are for children
However, this enduring reverence to a fantasy reveals a problem. It is perfectly fine to honor all our Presidents. The key institutions of our Republic deserve our respect. But it is not natural to mythologize office holders, especially when their actual record is at best mixed. JFK was assassinated. And this is sad. But his tragic death should not allow responsible citizens –let alone historians– to transform his life and record into a Legend divorced from reality.
A Republic is nurtured by the solid example of capable leaders. But the “Camelot” nonsense is for children, not for adults.